So far this year, the most popular show on Apple’s podcast app has been The Bible in a Year, produced by the Catholic group Ascension Presents. The podcast is hosted by Fr. Mike Schmitz, a well-known Catholic priest and public speaker who directs the young-adult ministry in the Diocese of Duluth, Minn.
Each episode is about 25 minutes in length and features Fr. Schmitz — who refers to himself and is better known to his thousands of listeners as Fr. Mike — reading Scripture aloud and exploring its historical context and theological meaning. During the first week of episodes, he has read through several chapters of the Book of Genesis, as well as a number of the Psalms and some chapters of the books of Job and Proverbs.
What are we to make of the fact that The Bible in a Year has now spent more than a week sitting atop the charts ahead of wildly popular, long-running news and crime podcasts such as The Daily by the New York Times, Crime Junkie, and The Ben Shapiro Show?
It is hard to understand this popularity as anything but a blazing sign of hope.
So many of us are hungry for more than the news, for rest within a world fraught with division. People long for clarity beyond the sound bites, for a reality that is meaningful and soul-filling, for an answer to the ache we feel for peace and stability amidst suffering and turmoil.
Of course, listeners can expect to find plenty of division in the stories of the Bible, and more instances of suffering and turmoil than newcomers might imagine. But perhaps that is part of the attraction and part of the consolation. The world has been this way from the moment the serpent slithered into the garden, from the instant Adam and Eve said yes to him and no to God.
Isn’t there some small comfort to take in that? It is a reminder that, though we live in unique times full of new pain and fresh challenges, original sin has ever imposed its tremendous cost. The long story of the Bible is, like our lives today, marked by that cost — but it also shows us the way to freedom.
It should console us to recall that we are far from the first in the history of nations to face plague and terror. But it should remind us, too, of a truth far more powerful: The Bible’s story of sin and suffering is answered by the story of a Savior.
That so many listeners have chosen in this new year to seek out that story and understand its depth and meaning is a clear sign of renewal. Likewise, the podcast’s overwhelming popularity confirms that the ongoing work of the new evangelization is bearing great fruit.
In addition to this new venture, Fr. Mike has offered two additional podcasts for the last several years, each of which has about 3,500 five-star reviews. One features short episodes addressing typical questions about Catholicism, faith, and pop culture; the other shares his weekly Sunday homilies from the Newman Center at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic began last spring and Catholic churches around the country were shuttered by government lockdowns, Fr. Mike and Ascension Presents began livestreaming his celebrations of the mass on YouTube for viewers around the world.
And they were far from alone in that effort. Every day of the early lockdowns, for instance, a priest from Word on Fire Catholic ministries — headed up by Bishop Robert Barron of the Los Angeles archdiocese — celebrated mass online. Bishop Barron might be the only priest in the U.S. more well-known than Fr. Mike for his efforts to usher the Church into the digital era. His Word on Fire podcast and his weekly homily podcast each have thousands of five-star reviews, and he has been a frequent guest on prominent secular podcasts to discuss Catholicism, religion, and politics.
Efforts such as these — and their consistent success, especially with young people — don’t often garner the attention of media, pundits, or the papers. And why should they? They repudiate the click-generating falsehoods that evil and death might have the final word, that our neighbors are our enemies, that the right politics could be our salvation, and that fallen men are our gods.
In the midst of those voices clamoring for our attention and our loyalty, there is something quieter on offer, something of substance and succor. As Christmas comes to a close and we face a new year of struggle, uncertainty, and anxiety, let us take heart that so many are turning to Scripture for their foothold.